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Handmade flies make a complete angler

THE SWIFT CURRENT of Alaska’s Kenai River revealed its power as I stepped in just far enough to make a back cast to a rising rainbow trout without snagging my fly in the bushes behind me. I was 25 and new to fly fishing. I had only done a little in Colorado before taking a job in Alaska. Along with my first fly rod, I also purchased a vise and some materials to tie a few common flies for Colorado streams. The first flies I tied were probably not fly shop worthy, but they passed for a bug. 

That day, I used a rod I had built, along with flies I had tied myself. I tried every fly I had that resembled a big, tasty bug to throw at that rainbow trout. I could see it rising and gulping bugs as the current swept them downstream, but it would not even look at my flies. I was thankful for the sights and the surroundings, but I wanted to catch it. Finally, I tied on the simplest of flies, a Griffith’s gnat. All you need for a Griffith’s gnat is some thread, a peacock herl, some hackle and a tiny hook. It was probably the first fly I ever tied, and it was the last one I thought would catch a nice rainbow trout on the mighty Kenai River. 

My cast placed the fly into the feeding lie the trout was using—an area that gives the fish a break from the current, but provides food and cold, oxygenated water—and I watched the fly disappear into the turquoise water. I knew from the lay of the line that it was drifting into range. I saw the trout rise and knew he had gulped another bug, but was it my Griffith’s gnat? Unsure, I lifted the tip of my fly rod, and the trout began to fight. Soon, I landed my first rainbow trout, not only on a fly rod that I built myself, but also on a fly that I had tied days before. 

That day, 30 years ago now, is etched in my mind and memory. I hope it never fades. Catching a trout on a fly rod is a good feeling. But to do it on one of the greatest rivers in the world, on a fly you crafted yourself, is a far greater feeling—a feeling never imagined by this old farm boy while chasing creek fish in Lynchburg, Tennessee. At least part of that feeling came from learning about tying flies and spending time at the vise. 

I still enjoy tying—more jigs than flies, these days. I invented a jig called the hairy cricket to catch bluegills and shellcrackers here in Kentucky. It’s a yarn-bodied jig with rubber strands for wings. You might say it’s as simple as the Griffith’s gnat, but it takes a little longer to tie. I never stopped spending time at the vice. For me, it’s a time to reminisce about faraway places and special moments outdoors and to truly relax. If you are an angler, I encourage you to learn to tie flies or jigs. It’s a great addition to the journey.

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